8 min read

I remember Shawn Michaels, the Heartbreak Kid

Memories from primary school
Two children standing in snow. The girl is about to throw a snowball at the boy, but he doesn't see it.
One second from pelting my brother with a snowball

Hello, grownups!

Back in 1970, a poet and artist named Joe Brainard published a memoir called I Remember. It's a disarmingly simple format, a collection of over 1,000 memories that all start with the refrain "I remember..."

I remember when a kid told me that those sour clover-like leaves we used to eat (with little yellow flowers) tasted so sour because dogs peed on them. I remember that didn’t stop me from eating them.

It's surprisingly moving. The memories skid from general nostalgia ("I remember sack dresses") to the deeply intimate ("I remember once when I made scratches on my face with my fingernails so people would ask me what happened, and I would say a cat did it, and, of course, they would know that a cat did not do it."). They leap from theme to theme, the repeated"I remember" almost like an incantation evoking this collage portrait of a life.

I Remember still has a cult following today, and it's inspired many homages (my favourite: Denis Hirson's I Remember King Kong (the Boxer), a portrait of white South African childhood between 1950-1970). It also makes for an extremely fun journalling prompt!

Brains never stop amazing me. They're squidgy hunks of fat and water that somehow manage to hallucinate a whole person. Quite remarkable, really.

Think of a dish from your childhood. Like, for me, every year on my birthday, my grandmother would make me a date loaf (I despised regular cakes). I can recollect that date loaf in perfect detail: the spicy smell, the gooey sweetness, the crunchy crust. I can remember my grandmother's hands as she hand-mixed the dough, fingers twisted into bent claws from arthritis, how her fingers would ache afterwards, how she'd sit on the couch letting me rub blue camphor gel into her knuckles to ease her pain. How she made me a date loaf every year, despite the pain it cost her.

That memory of date loaf isn't stored in a specific "shelf" in my brain, like the memory orbs from Inside Out. There's not a specific neural circuit you could point to and say, "there it is, Nana's date loaf!" A number of different parts of my brain are involved in remembering: my visual cortex reminds me what it looked like, my olfactory centre recalls the smell, other neural networks remind me of the emotions associated with it and some general knowledge I have about how baking works. A memory is an action, not an object. A memory is like sheet music for an orchestra: your amygdala and hippocampus are the conductors, but to be remembered, the whole orchestra of your brain must work together to play that memory.

"The brain is not an album in which memories are stored discretely like unchanging photographs. A memory is, instead, in the phrase of the psycholoogist Daniel L. Schachter, a 'temporary constellation' of activity - a necssarily approximate excitation of neural circuits that bind a set of sensory images and semantic data into the momentary sensation of a remembered whole." - Jonathan Franzen

So memory is a form of time travel. When you remember something, you're re-living it. Imperfectly, sure, but it's still quite remarkable for a lump of fat in your skull.

Some memories are triggered automatically. Often, sadly, awful ones: one of the worst symptoms of PTSD are vivid intrusive memories that keep replaying in your mind against your will. Smell can be a powerful memory trigger, probably because of your olfactory bulb's physical location in your brain, right next to the amygdala and hippocampus. But many things can trigger memories: sounds, places, people. It's like if the oboe suddenly starts playing a song, the rest of the instruments want to join in and complete it.

Memory systems and where they are found in the brain (from Neuroscience Online, modified from Squire and Knowlton, 1994)

Every time you replay a memory, you reinforce it on a physical level, strengthening the connections between that constellation of neurons. You forget the vast majority of stuff that happens to you, it's only a rare set of episodes and facts about your life that remain.

Every family develops a repertoire of stories they tell and retell about the past. That time your brother vomited all over your favourite stuffed moose on a car ride to visit your uncle. That time auntie Gladys got too drunk at cousin Mo's wedding and knocked the wedding cake over. You choose to retell specific stories because they support some view you have of the world, or of who you are and who other people are. And over time, your stories become your autobiography.

But it's not often that we sit down and just give ourselves time and space to wander through our own memories, and see what less-well remembered stories we find there. Other potential insights into who we are, the experiences that shaped us, and the bizarre shit we got up to as children. I tried an "I remember" exercise this morning, and realised I'd completely forgotten how much of a shit I was to my poor sweet younger brother.

I highly recommend taking and try an "I remember" exercise of your own. I think you'll be amazed at what rattles loose from your brain.

Wishing you date loaf!



I remember Shawn Michaels the Heartbreak Kid - some memories from Primary School

I remember that I thought my next-door neighbour Bryan was a really weird kid but I pretended to be friends with him because he owned a Sega Mega Drive and the Lion King game.

I remember waking up before sunrise to watch the WWF Royal Rumble with my grandmother. We both agreed that Shawn Michaels the Heartbreak Kid was the most beautiful man on the planet. Whenever the Undertaker came on she’d make the sign of the cross because he’d been resurrected by his brother Cain.

I remember bringing my dad’s Wilbur Smith novels into school and reading the naughty bits out loud to the other kids at aftercare.

I remember wandering around our lush Durban jungly garden in my bright pink dungarees that had pockets so deep they went all the way down to my knees, and filling my pockets with pretty stones and grasshoppers.

I remember there was a rule at school that if the temperature hit 40 degrees Celcius we were allowed to go home. Most of our classes were in these prefab containers with terrible ventilation. I remember that many teachers kept a thermometer on their walls and on midsummer days we'd stare at the thermometer begging it to crawl up from a stubborn 38.

I remember that my friend Chantelle was the first girl I knew who got her period. We’d all been sitting on the ground during break and she stood up and there was just this awful red mess on the back of her skirt. They sent her home with a jersey tied around her waist. I remember that I took my jersey into school every day after that, throughout balmy Durban summer, just in case.

I remember that there were rules about what colour panties you were allowed to wear to school (white or green, the school colours).

I remember being too scared to play Duke Nukem alone so I made my little brother sit next to me while I played it, but I made him close his eyes whenever we went into the strip clubs.

I remember bragging to my friends about how good I was at the Encarta Encyclopedia game and thinking that this made me an extremely big deal.

I remember one swimming gala where I had to compete in backstroke, and I felt my head hit the wall after just a few seconds and I felt so proud of myself until I looked up and realised I'd swum so skew I'd gone across two other lanes and hit the side wall only halfway up the pool.

I remember there being a big fuss one P.E. swim class and afterwards in the change rooms all the other girls saying that Gareth J. had had a boner. I pretended I saw it too.

I remember that night asking my mom what a boner was.

I remember that we weren’t allowed to play too close to the fence in case we were kidnapped by a passerby and sold for muti. Based on the number of times my mom warned us about this I assumed this was something that happened to kids, like, all the time.

I remember cheating on a spelling test by writing the words under the loose spine cover of a thick hardcover book. I remember that book was The Bedtime Book of Bible Stories.

I remember that same book had this one story called "Jesus Understood" about a kid who was dying of cancer and he was in a lot of pain so one night he propped his arm up in some pillows when he went to sleep, as a way to tell Jesus he was ready to die, and Jesus took him to heaven that night. And I remember being absolutely petrified to fall asleep for weeks after reading that story in case my arm somehow propped itself up on some cushions and Jesus murdered me.

I remember that my favourite sweets from the tuckshop were these black jawbreakers that we called "nikka balls". We had no inkling of any other name for them.

I remember that my only awareness about the end of Apartheid is that there were Black kids at my school now, and how everyone wanted to be friends with them because they knew better skipping games than we did.

I remember being obsessed with Slammers, these small cardboard disks you got in the bottom of bags of Simba chips.

I remember when every single person had a Tamagotchi. We couldn't afford the real ones so my mom got me a Dinopet instead, which I felt at the time was the worst thing any mother had ever done to her child.

I remember finding a dead bird in the garden and sobbing about it, and throwing that bird a complex bird funeral and burying him in a pretty spot near the fishpond.

I remember forgetting that I'd buried the bird there, and months later digging in that same spot to build a sand castle and unearthing its half-rotten skeleton.

I remember one birthday I desperately wanted to watch the movie Scream. My mom called all the other mothers first to get their permission. We made a big Christmas bed in the lounge and had five other girls sleep over. In the middle of the movie, there was a scraping noise, and we looked up to see my dad in a Scream mask tapping on the window with a plastic scyth, and we all screamed and grabbed each other, and then my friend Melissa started crying, and we realised she'd peed herself.

I remember feeling very anxious about trading marbles because I had no sense of the proper exchange rate of different marble types and I always felt like I was getting swindled.

I remember digging a tunnel through the soil to my brother, and the thrill of our fingers touching through the earth when we broke through.

I remember how much trouble I got into for daring my brother to play with the Bird’s Eye chilli bush that grew in our garden, and then he went inside and tried to pee.

I remember my brother got a birthday cake one year with action figure WWF wrestlers on it and I was so jealous I made a secret tiny cut into it before he saw it, so he wouldn’t get his wish.

I remember stealing my brother’s Shawn Michael action figure so that my Barbies could take turns marrying him.